On March 4, a panel of advocates who champion diversity and equity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields discussed the importance of representation in Canadian STEM research at the Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

The event was hosted by Women in Chemistry Toronto alongside campus groups such as the Black Graduate Student Association, the Toronto Science Policy Network, Women in Math, and University of Toronto Coders.

Panelists included Dr. Juliet Daniel, a cancer researcher and associate professor at McMaster University; Dr. Imogen Coe, a biochemistry professor at Ryerson University who studies membrane transport proteins; Dr. Deborah McGregor, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School whose research focuses on Indigenous knowledge systems; and Dr. Emily Agard, director of SciXchange at Ryerson University, an organization that increases the accessibility of science for youth.

The first question of the night was about the importance of representation. Coe said that for her, representation is important because if the inability to picture yourself in a field can translate to an inability to be an active participant, which she finds is directly related to the achievement of goals and aspirations.

Coe urged that “representation is essential if we are going to move towards a more equitable kind of environment where everybody does have a voice, everybody does have an ability to contribute and participate.”

Most of the discussion was focused on equity. McGregor discussed an imbalance with Indigenous people in regards to traditional knowledge due to historical trauma.

Coe explained the importance of inclusive leadership and the acquisition of core competencies as “an understanding and application of equity, diversity, and inclusion principles.”

“This is not a woman’s issue,” said Coe, noting that allyship is a concept that is actionable. “This is a human rights issue.”

Recruitment was one area that Agard elaborated on in terms of access.

“Sometimes the word doesn’t get out to certain circles, so you have all sorts of talented people who might not have the opportunities [because they] aren’t in the same circles,” said Agard. Here, recruitment plays a key role and ultimately the talent recruited will have strengths that “speak for themselves,” she says.

Daniel discussed the importance of equity, noting discrimination in committees of which she was a part.

Agard recounted that a committee was “willing to overlook the deficits of the Caucasian applicants” as their deficits would be overcome while “on the job.”

However, this same privilege was not granted to non-Caucasians. She said that it was important to “get [members] to start thinking about how we’re still biased, that we are willing to waive the deficiencies of candidate A but not the deficiencies of candidate B.”

Furthermore, Daniel talked about acknowledging discrimination and how while one candidate may not have the skill set to become a high-ranked employee, it is not due to lack of capacity or interest but due to being “discriminated against along the way.”

Lina Tran, President of University of Toronto Coders, noted that events like the panel discussion are important because support is not just from underrepresented groups but from allies as well. “I think it’s just amazing to see people come together and support each other through trying to change things institutionally and socially.”